Time 2.3 hrs

Difficulty Intermediate
Prerequisites Your Brain
Departments Human Technologies
Authors Ross Parker
Groupings Individual
Minimum Year Group None


What happens when your brain sees the future as a matter of constant worry and discomfort? This is anxiety, a state with a range of causes, and a surprising prevalence in modern society. In this unit you will learn about anxiety, and things you can do to become happier and more relaxed.


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5 mins
Getting Started
  • What happens when your brain sees the future as a matter of constant worry and discomfort?
  • This is anxiety, a state with a range of causes, and a surprising prevalence in modern society.
  • In this unit you will learn about anxiety, and things you can do to become happier and more relaxed.
10 mins
Fear vs Anxiety
Saving Lives
  • Fear is a state of heightened awareness, and readiness for response (such as fight, flight or fright), in response to a perceived threat.
    • In our species's distant past, fear was what kept us alive in the face of natural predators.
    • In other words, fear is a normal, healthy and useful response to certain stimulus.
    • Imagine if you were not afraid of an approaching tiger...your chance of surviving, and spreading your genes (our ultimate aim!), would be very much reduced:

  • Anxiety is more specific: is a state of fear or discomfort around events, imagined or real, that might take place in the future.
    • Anxiety is a normal emotion, that many people find before major or public events, such as presentations, social events, competitive sports, etc.
    • For some people, however, anxiety becomes a form of disordered thinking: it becomes pervasive, something that is very hard to escape.
      • If this describes you, then you are studying the right unit, as there is plenty you can do to manage and overcome anxiety.
      • But don't are not alone: anxiety, as you will see in the next section, is surprisingly common.
10 mins
Why Are We Anxious?
Life Is Scary
  • In the video below, Alain de Botton's School of Life looks into the reasons why humans are prone to anxiety.

  • It is easy to see how, with our history of becoming food for larger animals, the fragility of our bodies, the complex societies in which we live and the creativity with which we can think about terrible things, that we might tend to be anxious.
25 mins
Anxiety: A Personal Story
Mr. Parker's Personal History
  • The following is Mr. Parker's personal story of living with and learning through a diagnosed anxiety disorder. It is shared in the hope that you can see that there is no shame in being anxious and needing/seeking help, and that anxiety (even very extreme anxiety) is something that can be managed and overcome.

"I grew up in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s, a happy child in a happy family. I was outgoing, loved the company of people and enjoyed being active. In retrospect, I now know there were brief times when I suffered from bouts of severe anxiety, mild depression and even depersonalisation (a state of feeling detached from yourself and reality). At the time I knew it was uncomfortable, but did not realise that it was abnormal (although not uncommon).

As I grew older, these episodes become less regular, yet more intense. At the age of 19, having spent a very unhappy year at university in England, my mental state suffered a rapid deterioration. Already somewhat fragile, I had failed to look after my body and mind for too long: not enough sleep, too much alcohol, too much stress, young love turned sour and a failure to regulate my own thoughts combined to take their toll.

Throughout my second and third years of university I continued to become more anxious and less happy. I was disconnected from my friends, erratic and afraid. I managed to complete my studies, and, thinking I just needed to return home to escape a place I did not like or understand, I retreated to Hong Kong.

Accepting a well paid but soulless job in a bank, I hoped to find an escape in material security and the routine of work. It was a plan that did not succeed, and things declined steadily over a short number of painful weeks. I was confused and unable to admit to anyone how I truly felt. I felt ashamed of the constant stream of bizarre, anti-social thoughts that swept through my mind, and of my constant fear about everything: going to work, seeing friends, talking to strangers...taking the bus. Even the things I loved most, like playing golf, became terrifying.

After facing up to any one fear, like going our for dinner with friends, I would feel a rush of euphoria at having survived. But over the ensuing hours the old feelings would come trickling back, convincing me that disaster was imminent. Sooner or later I would be at rock bottom again.

Eventually the emotional cost of living a lie became too much: a massive panic attack in a public place brought me to the edge of what I could bear on my own. I confessed everything to my (very confused) parents, and eventually to my closest friends. No one could believe that behind my positive, friendly, confident, hard working exterior lay an utter wreck. I had done everything that was asked for me, performing exceptionally through school and university, and playing golf to junior world championship level...on the outside I looked like a successful young man. Inside I was tearing myself apart.

I quit my job, sought counseling, and started a course of anti-depressant medication. I began to learn that I was not alone, not a freak, not deranged. I had simply let my brain run away with its natural (and most likely genetic) tendencies, and allowed itself to restructure itself in such a negative way that I could no longer function.

After 3 months of generally isolated convalescence I crept back in the world to see if I could rebuild myself. I started to volunteer at Crossroads, then I began to work part time at the YMCA's inline hockey rink. Part time work became full time work: finally, a job that I loved. I spent more time with my friends, I moved out of home, I learned to understand my mind. I meditated, I did yoga, I roller bladed everywhere all the time, I learned about nutrition. I faced up to my profound fears around being good enough to be loved, of public speaking, of failure. I started my own ICT company and started doing contact work for schools. I learned to programme computers and build websites, I learned to teardown and rebuild PCs. I read voraciously, seeking to strengthen and deepen my mind.

Two steps forward, one step back, I became stronger, more confident and more in control of my own brain. I learned that everyone has a cross to bear, and that most people are not in private what they seem in public. I learned to believe that my biggest weakness could be turned into major strengths: empathy, compassion, patience, thoughtfulness.

To be sure, the anxiety never fully disappeared, and medication continues to be a part of my treatment. But my mind is today far, far stronger than I ever could have imagined. I can tune out thoughts I don't like, deal with stress and test myself with new challenges. I have filled my life amazing people (my wife and children, my parents and sister, my friends, my students and colleagues), with purposeful and passionate work and with a desire to help others trapped by their own brains and by a society that demonises failure and festishises success.

Today I understand that society compels us to hide our problems, and that happiness is something we are wise to pursue, not indirectly through financial reward, fame or love, but directly and for its own sake."

20 mins
Becoming Less Anxious
  • Whilst humans look to material technologies for happiness, science and experience suggest that it is in fact the other three leaves of our HT Venn diagram in which we find happiness:

  • In the long term, we can alleviate anxiety through:
    • Strong relationships, which give us support and emotional sustenance. Social technologies.
    • Finding meaning, doing work that matters, helping others. Spiritual technologies.
    • Learning about ourselves as human animals, and deepening our understanding of the fleeting nature of life. Cognitive technologies.
  • Another lens to consider this through is Martin Seligman's PERMA model, which focuses on:
    • Positive emotions
    • Engagement
    • Relationships
    • Meaning
    • Accomplishment
  • For those who suffer acutely with anxiety, the above list can seem impossible, denied by a brain that simply struggles to get through the day. In these cases, more immediate interventions may be necessary:
    1. Learning to relax and stop thinking - this is something you can start doing now, on your own (as covered in the next section).
    2. Talking to others - a problem shared (with a trusted confidant) is a problem halved. Talk to your parents, your form tutor, your best friend or Mr. Parker.
    3. Talk to a professional - if steps 1 and 2 do not work for you, or you feel serious help is needed now, contact the school counselor, or seek professional help with a psychologist. There is no shame in getting help.
    4. Medication - in some cases, often properly diagnosed by health professionals, anti-depressants can help. Medication, however, is often no magic bullet: there are side effects and recovery will still often depend on a willingness to get well. You'll need to go through step 3 to get to step 4.
  • Ultimately, life is a challenge, and if we choose to face up to the difficulties that we are handed, change is possible.
40 mins
Changing Now
  • For most people, most of the time, relaxation (through breathing, creative visualisation, meditation and mindfulness) can be enough to become less anxious and more happy.
  • To sample relaxation, and what it can offer, read the following instructions fully, and then following them:
    • Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed;
    • Get some headphones to use with your laptop or phone;
    • Get comfortable (preferrably in the yoga position known as the corpse pose);
    • Listen to the video below, without watching the screen (make sure YouTube's autoplay is off)
    • When the video is finished, take your time coming around: don't stand up right away, but roll over and lie on your side for a little time. Don't talk to people right away, just spend time considering what you have experienced.

  • Built into a daily habit, this kind of relaxation can quite literally reconfigure your brain and the way you use it.
30 mins
Finishing Up
  • Take some time to consider what you have learned and experienced in this unit.
  • Write out some reflective notes and thoughts: these may be a review of what you have found interesting in the unit or a more personal exploration of your feelings. In the latter case, they can be shared with your teacher in the knowledge that they will be treated as a private matter or kept private as an exercise in valuable self-expression. If this introspection leaves you feeling more rather than less anxious, seek out and have a chat with an adult who you trust.
  • When you are ready, submit your work as evidence of your learning.
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